Anna Ziegler Interrogates Princeton Freshmen, Brilliantly
by Barry David Horwitz
Playwright Anna Ziegler won’t let us off the hook. She presents two charming and evasive new Princeton students who fall into a rape accusation. Was She under the influence of her up-scale roommate whom she wants to impress? Was He deluded by his own success and arrogance? What really happened?
We get to know this couple so well that we can never forget who and what they did.
Behind them, a stark white screen, illuminated by fluorescent lit borders, changes from pink to blue to green, a fitting emotional barometer. The couple moves with dancers’ grace, smoothly choreographed by director Tracy Ward—as they glide into destruction.
It’s just the two of them onstage—describing their thoughts and an imagined cast of friends and family, nonchalantly and brilliantly. Clever freshmen, both struggling with demands and fears.
They conjure up other students, counselors, teachers, and deans who figure strongly and also ignorantly into their sex and public trial. We vividly feel Amber’s roommate Cynthia, who is cynical, rich, and jaded. We catch our breath as Tom describes his roommate, an Indian Adonis who plays the violin, and crosses boundaries.
Ziegler gives us the whole course of the couple’s week-long, binge-drinking, heavy partying progress toward sex in his dorm room. They toy with each other, they expose their vulnerabilities, their wrong-headed ideas, and U.S. teen conformity. They weave a terrific tapestry.
When The two actors speak directly to us, we sympathize with naive Tom (engaging Michael A. Curry), an African American piano student, thrilled to be at Princeton. He feels out of place, but lucky, and he misses him Mom.
Self-doubting but assertive, insecure Amber (sparkling Ella Dershowitz), wonders whether their trip to the ice cream shop was even a “date.” Amber has the rhythms of a girl ill at ease in her body, striving to be accepted, feeling not pretty enough. She, too, is naïve, and drinks too much, partying every night. She’s on thin ice, trying to please people, haltingly.
Ziegler’s couple deliver lines that are poetic and terribly authentic, forcing us to sympathize with first one, then the other. The dramatic experience involves us, as scenes fly by and the two perfectly attuned actors deliver pitch-perfect performances. Director Tracy Ward makes movement speak volumes in their tight lyrical duet.
Amber comes on strong to Tom. She doesn’t hide her attraction, and she crosses many lines with bold, yet self-deprecating slurs. Their words come back to haunt them in the dean’s rape “trial”—as we see their lives unravel in two impaired visions.
Their banter back and forth, often painfully undergraduate, features both attacks and slips of the tongue, racial insensitivity, and unconscious prejudice. They are embroiled in class conflict and sexual misadventure. In short, they are fucked.
At one point, out of the blue, Amber says, “I’m going to kiss you,” and she does. The word “actually” replaces no or yes. And a crucial exchange tips the balance at the end. We get to decide about a brilliant conclusion that makes us want to ponder Ziegler’s play. Run to see this sparkling gem at Aurora Theatre.
Photos by David Allen
“Actually” by Anna Ziegler, directed by Tracy Ward, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, through Sunday, May 5, 2019. Info: auroratheatre.org
Cast: Michael A. Curry and Ella Dershowitz.